Friday, June 21, 2013


Many documentaries have been made about the funerary practices of Torajans, who live in the central highlands of Sulawesi, a volcanic island in eastern Indonesia on the edge of the Sulu Sea. Just north of Bali and Lombok, the ruggedly beautiful upland is cloaked with the brilliant green of rice paddies, stands of bananas, patches of coffee and cacao, and punctuated by gaudily-colored roosters, snuffling black pigs, and some of the ugliest dogs you ever laid eyes on.
The star of the show, however, is the water buffalo, prized among animals for its endless usefulness. It's fair to say that the rich variety of Torajan life could not go on without the invaluable buffalo. The guy on the left, about seven years old, led by a ring through his nose (not 100% effective, by the way), is especially valuable because of his coloring. Solid black is not as pleasing to the gods, and animal sacrifice is a major part of Torajan funeral rites.
These behemoths (think of your average rhinoceros) lead privileged lives in one sense, as they are intimate members of the family that owns one. They are, during their early years, used extensively in the rice paddies. After harvest, they are turned into the paddy to eat the stumps of the rice plants, and wallow around churning up the mud. They are also poop machines, which is highly valuable. Their feet are enormous, with two huge splayed toes. Watching them walk is something like watching a slow-motion ballet of a batch of piglets in a black sack (figure that image out). For all their apparent docility, when stressed they are fearsome.
Nothing can stress a one ton buffalo any more than the raucousness of a major funeral procession: gongs, drums, bullhorns, chanting, wild howls of laughter from the deceased's relatives (this is the ;last time they'll be happy together, so everyone makes a major show of joy and jollity), roars of trhe crowd, jostling tourists (who can get pretty rude, like the half-dressed European female who tried a kidney shot on me), and assorted screaming boys with mayhem on their over-excited minds. That kind of noise is enough to upset anyone, let alone a placid beast who has led a pretty quiet life of pampering by his family (daily baths, mud wallows, plenty of food...the good life).
The funeral procession we watched, of a prominent clanleader who had died two years before (more on that in another post), was attended by all family members, a hundred or more as Torajans like lots of kids, who all come from far and wide to honor the deceased. His carved wood effigy, painted and clothed and amazingly lifelike, is carried in the procession; he looked like a toughie, and was probably not much fun to work for. Much prestige is attached to the number of buffalo sacrifices, and if you are an animal lover, you might want to stop reading any post about Toraja, because while the buffalo's demise is a helluva lot better than what happens in American meat factories, and his life has been idyllic compared to, say, an American production porker, the death is right out in the open, done in one slash with a long, wickedly-sharp knife by an expert.
A well-colored male buffalo will fetch over a thousand dollars. The number of buffaloes is very important: this funeral had 40, but not all were sacrificed. It turns out that the mottled, black-and-white animals are the preferred sacrifices, but if you're lucky enough to be born solid black you just might escape your fate and be given as a donation to the church (they're all here, Roman Catholic to Baptist to Seventh Day Adventist, 100 years of prosetlyzation*), and the church could of course sell him on to another funeral. For the buffalo, it's a crap shoot. Happily, he doesn't know things are going to go down the toilet until the deed happens.
While western religion is firmly entrenched in this pocket of an officially Muslim country (which may be why the roads are so appallingly bad), the old animist religion holds sway when it comes to death. The dead person must be accompanied by buffalo, the more the better. A recent nouveau riche funeral dispatched an appalling 300 of the poor things, which surely will earn a nice warm place in hell for the perps.
The caste system is alive and well around here in the sense of power, prestige, rites, and buffalo. A poor person will only have an evening funeral feast, nobody dies except maybe a pig or three. A middle-class will have a three buffalo, three day funeral. The rich have a minimum of seven buffalo, and a possibly gaudy seven day send-off. The meat is distributed according to strict guidelines: choicest pieces of course go to the family, while lesser cuts go to lesser folk including the local villagers and the poor. The hides are tanned; we saw a dozen hides stretched on racks drying in the sun.
The procession is a wildly raucous event, with the effigy and the coffin in its curved-top house carried on long bamboo poles by up to fifty straining men, jostled up and down and side to side, looking at times as if the whole might capsize. The image on the upper right shows the widow's palanquin at a calm moment; I can only hope the poor woman was strapped in and had taken dramamine. Traffic, which is considerable and consists 90% of motorbikes, stalls while the cortege wens its way a mile or so along the road to the funeral grounds. This, of course, is rarely to the buffalo's liking, and at one point two got into a fight, their handlers unable to control them even by hauling brutally on the nose rings, the crowd of onlookers jostling and trying to flee.
Arrival at the funeral grounds, several acres with especially-built two-story bamboo pavilions to hold perhaps five hundred or more people, was the start of more festivities, but not particularly for the buffalo in the first picture. It was the second to be sacrificed.
* any suggestions on spelling?

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